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Writing Gender Neutral Prose

For several decades, writers producing technical and nonfiction material have struggled with how to compose gender neutral prose. Before the 1970s the word “Man” was often used to mean all people, male and female. Likewise, the word “He” was used to mean a specific person who was either female or male. Instructions in manuals would read, “When the operator sees the red light flash they must press the blue button.” This created a fender imbalance in the language and implied that women were merely extensions of men.

Since then, society has looked for ways to be gender inclusive in writing. The first attempt was to write, “he or she.” Alternatives have been “she or he” – “he/she” – “she/he” and “s/he.” These were often rotated so that each gender reference alternately appeared first in sentences .

Not only are these phrases awkward, they persist in pointing out gender inequality by making a distinction. In addition, there is the question of who goes first, the male or the female reference.

Some people have suggested introducing new pronouns that are gender natural. None have been adopted. Even though the English language is very malleable and changes occur frequently, there are some words that are highly resistant to change. Those words include pronouns.

Others have suggested that the plural pronoun “they” be use in a singular sentence, such as, “When the operator sees the red light flash they must press the blue button.” This is simply not grammatically correct. Mixing singular with plural in a sentence sounds and reads wrong.

So, what is the solution? I have wrestled with this for years in writing articles, business documents and technical manuals. I suggest that writers always make their sentences plural unless they are speaking about a particular person, as in, “When operators see the red light flash, they must press the blue button.” There is no need for the ungainly “he or she” or to break grammar rules by combining plural and singular in a sentence. This is simple, flows seamlessly and does not bring up images of gender imbalance because there is no gender reference when writing in general terms.

If writers speak of a particular person, they may use "he" for males and "she" for females, as in, “Mary drove her car to work” or “Tom picked up his dry cleaning.”

There can be cases where a specific person being described does not want to be associated with a gender at all. A sentence could read, ”Feglarglata got into the car and drove to the store.” A problem arises if you want to say that a specific person drove to the store in a car owned by that individual.

This is simple when writing in first person. “I got into my car and drove to the store.” Pronounce such as ‘I’, ‘me’, ‘you’, ‘us’ and ‘them’ are gender neutral.

In the third person you might say, “Feglarglata got into the car owned by Feglarglata and drove to the store.” Repeating the individual’s name avoids any gender specific pronouns, but it is a little long winded and a bit awkward.

The sentence could also be written, ”Feglarglata got into its car and drove to the store.” This works, but addressing a person as ‘it’ sounds harsh and impersonal.

It is possible to write a complete story without any reference to gender and not get bogged down. Consider this tale.

Feglarglata owned a car and drove it to the store. It was a short trip and the scenery was pleasant. After finding a parking space near the front door, it was a quick walk into the store to buy some bread and vegetables for the party that evening. Feglarglata was looking forward to seeing new and old friends alike. There would certainly be an enjoyable game of charades.

The trip home passed the old city hall that had been converted into a community center. Childhood memories surfaced of days spent playing softball and making crafts.

At home, the groceries were put away. A quick inspection of the kitchen and living room showed that everything was ready for the party.

The doorbell rang and Grylke walked into the living room sporting a wide smile. The old friend said, “I have been looking forward to this. I saw the others at launch and they are all coming”.

The two of them shook hands. Feglarglata said, “Can you help me bring some chairs in from the kitchen. We should be able to finish before anyone else arrives.” As soon as they were done, the doorbell sounded again.

I missed a call this morning

Today is my 65th birthday and I missed a call this morning.Every year on my birthday, my mother would call at exactly 8:05 AM and say that so many years ago, at that time, I had wakened her and she was calling to wake me up. Then she would laugh. She had that sort of sense of humor. She died a little over two years ago just 10 months before I published my first novel, Beyond the Shallow Bank. It is an extreme regret for me that she never lived to see this. She would have shown the book to everyone in her retirement village and said, “My handsome and smart son, David, wrote this.” That would have made her so very happy.

Just the (Necessary) Facts: Researching historical fiction

Historical fiction requires the same command of writing craft as is found in any genre. In addition, writers of historical fiction must conduct intense research into the people, objects and locations of the time being written about. Authors must become immersed in the subject while building stories and characters that create unique books.

Research can take many forms; books, newspapers and magazines from the period, lectures, museums, videos, archival films, interviews, search engines and physical journeys to the places where the book takes place. I used all of these in researching a historical novel. Traveling to the actual location and visiting museums gave me the feel of the place and provided context to period exhibits. Travelogue lectures and videos were like guided tours. Archival films documented specifics about clothing, transportation and current affairs. The Internet gave me details about temperature, population, landscape, customs and festivals. Original and microfilmed copies of period magazines and newspapers filed in gaps concerning everyday life, anxieties and hopes. The advertisements were very interesting because they highlighted desires and morals of the time.

If done thoroughly, research will produce volumes of notes. Yet, authors will only want to use a fraction of the facts they gather. Some might question this after making such an investment in research and think that they need to include everything they have discovered because it is so interesting. This is a mistake. A historical novel is not a text book. It must contain just enough details to set the novel in the time period without overwhelming the reader. Too many facts distract the reader from the plot and character development. It’s important to reach a balance.

Consider a paragraph that uses extensive historical facts, such as, “Aaron opened the door of the 1962 Chevy Impala and sat in the driver’s seat. It had C pillar styling that was not offered in the 4-door hardtop. The engine was a 409 cubic-incher that only came with a standard transmission. It was a true legacy to Swiss race car driver Louis Chevrolet (1879 – 1941) and his partner William C. Durant (1861-1947) who started the Chevrolet Motor Car Company on November 3, 1911. Aaron knew this car would win the race and save the orphanage.”

All of these fact are real, and may be of interest to car enthusiasts, but it is far too much information for the majority of readers. That Aaron has found a fast car that will win a race to save the orphanage is lost in the words. It would be far better to write, “Aaron opened the door of the 1962 Chevy Impala and sat in the driver’s seat. Surly, the big 409 cubic-inch engine would win the race and save the orphanage.”

That is not to say you should leave out all the facts you discover. One of the things readers seek in historical fiction is a sense of the time and place. Descriptions of houses, rooms, clothing, transportation and implements create the feeling of a time gone by, but you should be selective in what you include. I wrote a historical novel in which I needed to get some lye that would be used in a future scene into a character’s pocket. This was both setting and foreshadowing, so it needed it to be memorable but subtle. I choose to have another character make soap while the main character helped. I researched soap making and learned many details. I used very few of those facts in the scene. The description of soap making consists of a general overview that gives the sense of making soap in the time period while leaving out detailed specifics, except for one. The character making the soap uses one type of lye over another, explaining that it makes softer soap but has a more violent reaction when exposed to water. The main character ties some left over lye in a handkerchief and puts it in a pocket. The fact that the lye was more active was very important to the plot a few chapters later.

When writing about actual historical figures, you cannot change known, historical facts. Marie Curie discovered radium and died from radiation poisoning at the age of 66, but an author can’t have her stop experimenting and live to be 100. Harriet Tubman was an abolitionist who was a former slave. She organized the underground railway to help other escaped slaves, but a historical novel cannot have her become president of the United States. Whatever documented actions a historical person took cannot be changed in a book. However, the author has complete leeway to explore the private moments in their lives when there is no known record of what they did or did not do, say or think. These unknown emotions, dreams, desires, etc. are fair game. Pablo Picasso’s painting Guernica is a passionate condemnation of the Spanish civil war. The intent and result are evident, yet, who has crawled inside the mind on Picasso to know exactly what he was feeling and thinking at the time? Authors of a historical novel can do this.

Historical fiction can be entertaining, informative and thought provoking. It can also shed light on our contemporary world by showing us what has changed and what has not, thus giving us the opportunity to grow as societies and individuals. Authors can do this by choosing the right details, creating memorable characters and telling great stories within the chosen time period. thin the chosen time period.

Everyone Starts Someplace

No matter the career path people pursue, they start off knowing next to nothing about it. Carpenters must learn how to pound nails. They may have watched every episode of a particular home improvement show, but until they gain the experience of actually doing it, they will hit the wood as much as the nails and half of those will be bent. The same is true in other professions. Initial exposure is a good grounding, but there is a difference between knowing a thing and knowing the experience of a thing.

This includes writing. It takes time to learn the nuances of the craft; language, characterization, dialog, plot, suspense, comedy, drama and so forth. We all begin by imitating the styles of writers we have read until we develop our own unique voice, much as art students copy masterpieces to get the feel of how the original artists captured light or expressed an emotion. Through this process, writers accumulate techniques they will continue to use. There are those who do pop onto the scene with works of brilliance, however, for most it can take years to master the craft.

Even after reaching that professional level, you will discover that the process of learning never ends. There are always new things to discover. This requires a willingness to continually evaluate yourself as a writer and to examine critiques. They could come from other writers, Professional or learning, or a critique group. A major difference between professionals and neophytes is the ability to override their egos and commit themselves to improvement.

A critique is an examination of how effectively themes or points was expressed. When writers examine critiques about their works, they can gain a better understanding of how to best communicate to readers.

Some new writers can be hypersensitive to accepting critiques. Suggestions may be considered attacks on their character. They may think of their stories as their babies and each word their blood on the page. I have actually heard these words used. Some writers might say that their mother liked their manuscript or their friends enjoyed it. These attitudes are a great impediment to becoming a professional writer. Mothers like everything about their children and friends may not want to point out faults. Writers must look to people involved in writing who are willing to comment on how effective their work is.

Many beginning writers fear that they will run out of material and, therefore, they must jealously guard what they have. In truth, authors have an inexhaustible source of new ideas that they can draw on by just sitting down, writing them out, seeing how they read, and following threads that are suggested by the material. I threw out five times as much text as that retained in one final manuscript. Entire characters, cultures, locations and plot lines were removed because they did not serve the book.

There is a standard answer people in the arts give when a beginner asks about how to break into the business. It goes something like, “Do your best. Send your material out, and if you don’t make it in five years move on.” This is nonsense. What of you needed five years and a month to get you book accepted by a publisher? If you have the determination to work on your material, improve yourself and learn from other writers, continue in your day job and write in the morning or evening. Tom Clancy was just a middle aged insurance salesman while he worked on Hunt for Red October. J.K. Rowling submitted Harry Potter and the Philosophers Stone to over 20 publishers. What if she had stopped after 19? Keep writing and learning. What do you have to lose?

Apprentice carpenters begin in near ignorance. They get experience on the job, go to training courses and proceed through the ranks to become master carpenters. There is no shame in not knowing everything at first, but we humans are impatient, even more so in this wired world. We must all be willing to swallow our egos long enough to listen to others and profit from their views and experiences to become masters.

Sexual Harassment Negatively Impacts the Bottom Line of Businesses

The effect of sexual harassment and assault on individual women in the work place has been studied and the pain and trauma of these victims recognized. But, what about the effect on the companies and their employees where sexual harassment takes place. An article by Marcel Faggioni (B.A. (Hons), M.I.R., CHRP, Q. Med. ) released by Integrity Management Consulting Group, a division of M.C. Faggioni & Associates-Associés Inc., discusses a study conducted by Jana Raver, Associate Professor & Distinguished Professor of Organizational Behaviour of the Smith School of Business at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario, Canada and Michele Gelfand, Professor of Psychology and affiliate of the RH Smith School of Business at the University of Maryland that documents the link between sexual harassment in an organization and the impact on the bottom line.

Mr. Faggioni writes, “The results of the study reveal that there is a strong link. It found that sexual harassment is associated with appreciably more conflict in work teams. Additionally, it was discovered that teams showed less cohesion and less success in meeting financial goals on an organizational basis.”

The researchers state that businesses must “make it clear that all sexually harassing behaviors are forbidden, even mild behaviors that perpetrators think are ‘just good fun’.”

Faggioni concludes with, “… it is clear that eliminating sexual harassment is wise not only from a moral, ethical, and legal perspective, but it also makes good business sense.”

There are many factors that contribute to harassment in the work place. One of these is the company culture within an organization as established by management and practiced by all employees. It is an expression of a company’s values and goals.

Some company cultures establish policies to prevent sexual harassment and support women in their careers. Others might make no mention of harassment, thus leaving a void. Company policies can block women or take the side of perpetrators. As well, employees can bring discriminatory practices that are drawn from outside influences in their own lives. Without specific guidelines, these attitudes can spread unchecked within a company and directly impair women in hiring, work assignments, equal pay for equal work and advancement. If management is to create a workplace free of sexual harassment and assault toward women, it must mandate cultural changes from the top that require gender equality to override hidden agendas.

People can be resistant to change. It might seem a threat to the status quo, a person’s personal authority or an ideology. As a result, changes can take time and effort to implement. Still, change can succeed if management establishes gender parity as a top goal and works to enforce it.

Whereas company cultural changes come from the top, they must be implemented from the bottom. In some cases disciplinary actions may be required to correct undesired activities. This might mean termination of an employee who refuses to follow new policies. However, discipline alone runs the risk of driving the sexism underground where resentment can fester as individuals continue to covertly disrupt the work place.

Education is vitally important in changing attitudes. An organization can implement their own programs or hire outside consultants trained in addressing sexual harassment. Some men may think their actions are not harassing even though they are. Education has the ability to change such outlooks. Companies must continually to emphasize the importance of gender equality with individuals and groups and monitor behavior to make corrections where necessary.

This is a beginning. To bring about true change, management and employees must confront those who act in a harassing or bullying manner. The tide will turn when enough individuals stop laughing at insulting jokes and call out those who harass women. This must be done in a non-confrontational, but firm way. It was once acceptable for people to smoke in the office. It no longer is. Even though there was great strife over this, change did come. Yet, it is easy to slip back into old, familiar ways. We must continue to think and demand that everyone be treated equally.

David A. Wimsett
Beyond the Shallow Bank


Twitter: #menhavetocare

Creating impactful characters with emotion and detail

There are two basic kinds of fiction stories, character driven and plot driven. Every story has both elements to one degree or another. Stories of character need plot to test and challenge the characters. Stories of plot need characters to advance the story.

Using emotion in writing is specific and unique to each character. “A man walked into the room. A scar ran across his left cheek. Sometime in the past his nose had been broken. He sneered as he surveyed the room. ‘Has anybody seen Barty?’” This is a dangerous man who has led a hard life. There is no need to rely on cliché references. The reader knows what kind of character this is. Such details are tags that quickly identify characters and remind the reader of who they are. It might be a voice pattern or a food they like or a mannerism with their hands. All main characters need unique tags to differentiate them in the story.

When writing depends on sentiment, it draws from general clichés. It stays on the surface and lacks specifics, relying instead on shared cultural experiences for reference. It uses generalities, such as, “A man walked in the room. He looked like Humphrey Bogart. He said, ‘Has anybody seen Barty?’” Those who have no experience with the twentieth century tough guy actor would have no idea as to how the character looks or what his attitude is. Even those who remember Humphrey Bogart will form different images in their minds from different performances, or from fogged memories.

Consider a group of refuges escaping to a new home. We could write the story from a sentimental viewpoint using common clichés as in:

"The crowd of refugees walked along the hot, dusty road. There were men and women and children fleeing a war they had not started. There were shop keepers and doctors and taxi drivers and artisans all driven out by the bombs dropped on them. Adini, a dark haired boy of six, trudged next to his twelve year old brother. Their father walked slowly in front of them. He would turn around at times and urge them forward.

"All three were hungry and thirsty. Adini wanted to stop, sit down and cry. His feet hurt and he was tired. He thought back to the day a barrel bomb had exploded in the apartment above them, killing his mother. He had cried as his father dragged him into the street just before their apartment caved in. Now, the only hope they had was to reach a safe haven."

Now, let's get emotional and specific.

"Adini’s stomach cramped as he forced himself to place one foot in front of the other on the dust laden road. He ran his tiny hand over his dark hair and his tongue along his parched lips. He was only six and didn’t fully understand why they were fleeing. He remembered the bombs being dropped on the buildings. He saw, in his mind, his mother laying under a slab of concrete and his father dragging him from the building as he screamed and fought to run to his mother’s side. Two hundred others marched with him in the heat – men, women, children, infants. They moved at a somatic pace. He heard moans and sobs, but no one spoke. Some limped. One man helped support a pregnant woman, though Adini was too young to understand why her belly was so large. His father had carried his sister after her legs were crushed in the collapse of their apartment building. One morning, she didn’t wake up and they left her body at the side of the road. It was the first time Adini had ever seen his father cry.

"His older brother had told him that they were going to a place where milk and honey flowed and they would be safe forever. The thought of food made the cramps grow worse. His feet hurt and he wanted to stop walking, sit down and cry, but he knew his brother would hit him if he did because everyone’s feet hurt, everyone wanted to sit down and everyone wanted to cry. He pursed his lips together and continued walking."

Which version had more impact? Which reveals the character of Adini more powerfully for the present and the future? Drawing specific emotions out of your characters creates memorable stories that stick with your readers and solidify your themes.